I was 17 when I first set eyes on the manicured grass of Wimbledon’s Centre Court. Gerald Williams, a reporter for the London Daily Mail, took me up into the stands to survey the court below on the eve of my first appearance at the 1961 championships. It was an overwhelming moment. I had yet to play a single point, but for some reason, I felt at home there. Now, when I return to the All England Club, I always take a moment to sit by Centre Court before the crowds pour in and reflect on the sport that I love so much.
Tennis has changed a lot since 1961. When I started out, celebrating a point with a fist pump was frowned upon, we swung simple wooden racquets, we didn't have entourages, and the only clothing deals some of us younger players had were with our mothers, who agreed to do our laundry in between matches. During the pre-open era, when we were technically amateurs, we received no money and only a portion of our expenses were covered by the tournament or, in my case, the USTA. My additional expenses were paid by tennis supporters from back home, including a Mr. Harold Guiver, the Long Beach Tennis Patrons, and the Century Club. Despite our relatively limited equipment and finances, Karen Hanzte, my doubles partner, and I giggled our way to the 1961 doubles title. I eventually went on to win 19 more Wimbledon championships.
Even as advances are a valued part of tennis, it is important that we respect the traditions of the sport and that we always be looking for that balance between the "then and now." While I knew tennis would evolve, I never imagined that there would be a retractable roof over Centre Court, that electronic line-calling would decide crucial points, or that exotic racquet and string polymers would enable the ball to be hit with such spin and speed.
It probably comes as little surprise to anyone that I'm a big advocate for change, whether it is on a technological or a societal front. We wanted to make tennis better for future generations of players and fans. That was part of the reasoning we used when we pushed for equal prize money for men and women at the four major tournaments (which, with the help of Venus Williams, finally became a reality in 2007). In that specific example, it was not just about the money. It was also about the message.
Our desire to keep improving tennis was also a big part of our thinking when we formed World Team Tennis. Now almost 34 years old, WTT provides a unique approach to the sport, allowing men and women to compete as a team, making equal contributions to the result.
Over the years, we at the WTT have often been the first to introduce innovations to tennis, changes that make the experience better for the fans while retaining the spirited level of competition the players enjoy. For example, WTT introduced instant replay to professional tennis competition in 2005. Now it's known as Shot Spot or Hawkeye and is an integral part of every major tournament.
If we have the technology, we should use it. It gives a player peace of mind and it engages the fans. Any time you can make things better for the players and improve the experience for the fans, you are hitting winners.
Early on, we may have been considered the mavericks in our approach to improve the sport, but now, I must say, it is gratifying that the professional tennis tours and major tournaments have begun to implement some of the enhancements to the sport that first started with WTT.
There is something to be said for the roles electronic line-calling and other technological advances are playing in our sport. A few years ago at the U.S. Open, Serena Williams lost a critical match that included some questionable calls. That match did a great deal to help make electronic line-calling a reality in the major tournaments. You never want the officials to affect the outcome of a match. You want the athletes to determine the final outcome.
There are some purists out there who believe that Wimbledon's new roof desecrates the hallowed ground of Centre Court. I respectfully disagree.
Over the years, I had several matches where I wish we had played under a roof instead of being forced to sit out lengthy rain delays or playing in the rain. Both my 1963 Wimbledon final (against Margaret Smith) and the 1973 final (where I played Chris Evert) were delayed by a full day due to weather. The 1963 final was delayed by two days, because back then we did not play on Sunday, so we did not take the court until Monday. Both matches required a very long wait, and I would have loved a roof on those occasions. I also remember a pivotal match against Martina Navratilova later in my career where we played in the rain. It was miserable; my glasses got rain on them and fogged up, and I lost the match 10-8 in the third set. Would a roof have helped? It definitely would have made things better.
More recently, there was last year's epic men's final between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. Rain extended that match to almost five hours (making it the longest men's final in Wimbledon history) and play stopped and started nearly as much as a New York taxi.
Of course, not everyone will walk onto Centre Court or play a match with the benefit of electronic line calls. But technological advances in the sport have trickled down to the sport's citizen players and fans. Washouts at Wimbledon--at least on Centre Court--will become a thing of the past, and a reliable match schedule will guarantee consistent television coverage, which is critical to broadening tennis's fan base. Plus, new racquet and string technology can help public court players feel, even it's for just a few points, as though they can hit as cleanly as the pros, making fans feel as if they're part of tennis, which is essential to the sport's future.
Yes, a lot has changed since my first visit to Wimbledon. When I took my seat in the stands this year, I was glad to see the new roof overhead. Rain or shine, it forecasts nothing but blue skies for the future of my beloved sport.